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Here's Your Sign!

Here's Your Sign!

Is that a "Stupid" sign taped to your forehead?

If you stick with hunting and gun dog operation long enough you're apt to witness an occasional blunder. Who knows, you might even commit an error yourself sometime, unlikely as that may seem. Sports who commit truly dumb mistakes may be entitled to receive their own "stupid" sign--a really hot item these days that is selling like popcorn for something like $1.89 each or three for 10 bucks.

As a bona fide authority on blunders, I am taking this opportunity to report on some typical incidents well suited for an award.

One highly qualified example involves a professional, I repeat, professional gun dog trainer whom I saw pitching firecrackers and cherry bombs into his kennels one morning. Almost at a loss for words, I questioned his sanity to his face, whereupon he indignantly informed me that he performed this procedure from time to time in order to accustom the pups to loud noises so that they would not become gunshy.

With more than passing interest, I followed up on that caper for a time afterward. Incredibly, only five or six of the two dozen dogs I kept track of left his kennel gunshy. Nevertheless, brother, here's your sign!

I regret that I can't name the recipient because he is still alive and probably well enough to hunt me down. Don't worry; he's long out of business now and his clients are better off not knowing what he was doing.

Shock collars, in the hands of neophytes, amount to the same thing as a coupon for a free stupid sign. Like the wingshooter in the Kansas hill country whose pointer got rolled by a collar set on scorch every time he got more than 30 or 40 feet ahead of his handler. When I inquired about this peculiar training tactic, I was informed, "When he busts up birds, I want them to be in shooting range." Well, sir, you can turn your sign back in when you've acquired a professionally trained springer spaniel. Meanwhile, please turn your pointer over to someone who understands how pointing dogs do their job.

Indeed, electric collars have brought about a whole new aspect of absurdity. Back when commercial e-collars were still a pipe dream, a handler of topnotch, all-age field dogs showed up at a South Florida trial with his homemade contraption featuring a Model A Ford coil and other makeshift components. With a curious crowd assembled, the inventor attached the collar-receiver to his teenage son, shooing the boy onto the trial grounds.

Someone from the crowd asked why he didn't hook the thing up to one of his dogs.

"What, and ruin one of my good competition performers?" he replied.

Next thing we heard was a blood-curdling scream as the kid ripped off the weird looking collar and streaked for a nearby pine tree. We never saw the collar component again and the youngster refused to come down out of the tree until the transmitter was placed on the ground under him and everyone had backed away. The consensus among those who know the tinkerer was that his kid was something of a smart-mouth and that it was probably best to have tested the unit on him rather than the blueblood pointers. In any event, here's your sign--better late than never.

It so happens that the most troublesome fault committed by gun dogs is having the wrong owner. One of these wrong owners made his way directly for my chum and me as we hunted some pine flatwoods a while back. He was driving a lifted pickup with one hand at the wheel and the other reaching high above the cab window. As he approached we could see that his fist was clenched tightly around a shock collar transmitter, and he was pressing so hard on the hot button his knuckles had turned white. Through gritted teeth he asked if we had seen a lemon and white pointer run through there recently. We hadn't.

"I let that damn bonehead out by a two-track," snarled the driver. "I knew I shouldn't have turned him loose near a road!"

With that, the sport streaked off through the pines still waving the transmitter high in the air. For some time, I held hope out that that pointer ran far enough to find a patient, capable new handler. As for the collar operator, when you read this, please get in touch and let us know where to send your sign.

Electric collars are not the only things to cause a suspension of brain activity. Ego and vanity work just as well. On my first hunt for desert quail in New Mexico, some knowledgeable locals including my son, Dave, hosted me. I recall thinking it was a shame that they seemed to use their canines mostly to recover dead and crippled scaled quail. I knew scalies had a reputation as runners but I was overjoyed to have Junior the pointer along on that hunt. A real speedster, Junior had plenty of experience around the country on all kinds of birds and I knew he would have no trouble nailing scaled quail so we could simply step up and flush them.

I was even more convinced of this when Dave pulled up to our first hunting spot, a windmill tank and corral with hold-up pens. At first, I thought there was some kind of blue vegetation on the otherwise bare ground and it appeared to be moving. Turns out it was a swarm of moving scalies milling around under the ramshackle cattle pens and Dave was urging me to hurry up with launching Junior.

"Take it easy," I chided. "Those birds aren't going anywhere and they won't get away from Junior if they do."

Continuing to calmly tape boots on the pointer, I was secure in the knowledge that he could give those quail a half-hour head start and still slam the whole flock, which was then drifting slowly towards the mesquite, but still in plain view.

"If you don't finish up and get him on those birds right now," Dave argued, "we'll never see 'em again."

As I said, it was my first blue quail hunt and during many subsequent ones I have learned that three Master Hunter birds dogs can dig a scalie out of a rat hole, stay in hot pursuit within six feet of it and lose the bird within 10 seconds never to be seen again. As for that first flock, I was dead certain that Dave's sense of near panic was the silliest thing I'd ever heard.

But I hurriedly finished the boot job on Junior and put him on the ground just as the last of the scalies disappeared into the mesquite muddle. Sure enough, the dog went birdy and began hot trailing through the scrub immediately. I assured Dave that Junior would have the whole bunch pinned down in a matter of minutes.

The pup was trailing faster and we had to jog to keep up with him. It took him only 15 or 20 minutes to cross a broad valley and reach a jumble of dunes. I scrambled up one of them to keep track of Junior and when I looked back the windmill and pickup were mere fly specks out on the horizon. The dog had yet to point anything and we had raised no quail.

"Time to head back,"

Dave groaned. "Those birds will be back near the tank by now."

I didn't believe that either, until I heard the darn things chirping to each other from the mesquite scrub at the edge of the hold-up pens. On that return trek, Junior somehow pointed four singles, two birds flushed wild and out of a flock of some eight- or nine-dozen scalies we sacked a total of three birds between us.

Being the quick study that I am, it has taken me only two or three full hunting seasons to acquire the scalie hunting know-how I could have gotten in an afternoon by listening to Dave and other experienced locals. And, in case you think it is all about other sports' bungling, they tell me that my stupid sign is ready to be picked up at the front gate.

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